McCarthy referenced 30 carries this week as a benchmark the Packers like to hit, a total they have surpassed in four of the past five games after clearing that mark in just four of the first 13 contests this season. Since McCarthy took over as head coach in 2006, Green Bay has a 26-4 record (.867) when it runs the ball at least 30 times in a game (including playoffs), with a 7-1 mark this season.
“It (the number of carries) really is true as much as I like to tease Mike at times,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “It's important for us to at least be patient with the running game. And James (Starks) did a great job against Philadelphia making big-time runs. I think only 66 yards against Atlanta last week, but 25 carries.
“So at least we're able to give the look as if we're trying to take the run game, which really helps out the play-action game. We had some success in the play-action against Atlanta, had some success against Philadelphia as well. It needs to be something that -- you're playing Chicago. They're a tough defense. They play the run very well. They have to at least think we're going to run it for us to be successful in our play-action game.”
The Bears finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the league in run defense, allowing their opponents an average of just 90.1 yards per game on the ground, including eight games with 85 rushing yards or less.
That included both games against the Packers as Green Bay combined for just 123 yards on 38 carries (3.2 avg.). In the Packers’ Week 3 loss at Soldier Field, they posted an average of 4.2 yards per carry, but only 15 attempts. That was not only Green Bay’s season low but also only the third time in McCarthy’s head-coaching tenure that the Packers didn’t have more than 15 carries.
Opposing offenses ran the ball just 24.1 times per game (No. 4) against Chicago this season and averaged 3.7 yards per attempt (No. 6). The Bears were especially effective against the run on first down, with more than half of the attempts (108-of-206, 52.4 percent) going for 2 yards or less. That percentage ranked No. 2 in the NFL behind only Pittsburgh (56.1), who led the league in overall rushing defense.
Starks recorded the finest individual effort of the season two weeks ago in the Wild Card contest at Philadelphia when he posted 123 yards on 23 carries (5.3 avg.), the most ever by a Green Bay rookie in the postseason. His production dipped against Atlanta last Saturday as he registered 66 yards, but those 25 carries helped keep Atlanta’s defense honest as Rodgers racked up 366 yards through the air in the 48-21 win.
“I would like to get a little more production,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “We had a couple of negative runs there early where we had some penetration, and that is a good, sound run defense that we played against (in Atlanta). But hopefully we'll be able to move the ball a little more effectively on the ground from a productivity standpoint.
“I think any time you can have balance, and any time you can line up in a formation and present to the defense, whether we're in the shotgun formation and we've got three wide receivers and we can stick the ball in the back's hand every now and then, I think that's good so they can't just tee up.”
The countdown is on
The Packers held their final practice of the week on Friday, working inside The Don Hutson Center with the doors open to simulate the 20-degree temperatures expected on Sunday at Soldier Field.
“Normally on Fridays when the heavy lifting is done there's a lot of energy in the morning meetings, definitely the energy will carry throughout practice,” McCarthy said. “I was pleased with the practice, the standard and the level of practice, the efficiency and everything of it.
“Now it's 50 hours. The 50-hour rule is in place at this time for them to get their bodies ready, ready to go, rest and everything, and that's a part of that, nutrition, and from here to kickoff it's all mental.”
Rattling off four consecutive wins, including two on the road, to either keep their playoff hopes alive or to advance in the postseason has put the Packers in a good place mentally according to Rodgers.
“I think that our guys had better focus this week, great preparation,” Rodgers said. “I think we realize the importance of this game. If you are a rookie coming in, I think you might think this is how it goes every year. But I hope those guys realize what a great opportunity we have and this doesn’t come around every year. You’ve got to make the most of it on Sunday.
“This is as much confidence as I have seen from these guys. We are a different team. Every year is a different group of guys. I have enjoyed this group as much as any group that I have ever been around. I think we are in a good place mentally. Now physically we are going to have to go out on Sunday and do our jobs. You hope and pray that the preparation level from the guys in this locker room has been at a level that allows them to play with confidence on Sunday.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been in the NFL for a quarter of a century, and Sunday’s game will be the fourth conference title game he has been a part of during his coaching career.
Capers was part of two championship teams with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the USFL in 1984-85, but is still looking for his first Super Bowl appearance.
Capers was the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh in 1994 when the Steelers lost to San Diego in the AFC Championship before he left the Steelers to take over the expansion Carolina Panthers. The Steelers would advance to the Super Bowl the next season, falling to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.
Capers guided Carolina to the NFC title game in just his second season as head coach in ‘96, but lost to the Packers at Lambeau Field. In his first season as defensive coordinator in Jacksonville in 1999, the Jaguars advanced to the AFC title game before falling to Tennessee.
“I think the longer you're in the business you realize how hard it is,” Capers said. “You might go for a period of time. I can remember Pittsburgh in '94, I had taken the Carolina job, and we got beat in the championship game, and I'm thinking to myself, ‘I'm taking an expansion team, it might be a long time before I get a chance to go back,’ and two years later we were coming back up here.
“I think you appreciate it more, the effort, and how hard it is and how every step you take that the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller.”
The Packers awarded game balls to several players for last Saturday’s 48-21 Divisional playoff over the Falcons.
Rodgers received one for the offense, cornerback Tramon Williams for the defense and defensive back Jarrett Bush for special teams. The “Big Hit” award went to linebackers Robert Francois, Erik Walden and Diyral Briggs.
Linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) has been ruled out for Sunday and will miss his sixth straight game. Center/guard Jason Spitz (calf) did not participate in practice on Friday and is questionable.
The Packers added two players to the injury report on Friday, linebackers A.J. Hawk (knee) and Walden (shoulder), but both are listed as probable.
Both players were limited in practice on Friday, but McCarthy said he anticipated they will play on Sunday. Hawk has a knee bruise and McCarthy said the team was just being cautious with him.
The rest of the players listed on Green Bay’s injury report are probable: Briggs (ankle), tackle Chad Clifton (knees), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf), running back John Kuhn (shoulder), cornerback Pat Lee (hip), linebacker Clay Matthews (shin), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe).
For Chicago, safety Chris Harris (hip) was limited on Friday after not practicing the previous two days and is listed as questionable. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee), who did not practice on Thursday, was taken off the report.
Additional coverage - Jan. 21